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Bill threatens rule of law, says President

17 March 2006

The President of the Law Society of Scotland is warning that the new bill to change complaints handling could lead to parts of the country becoming "advice deserts" as solicitors are forced to give up providing certain legal services.

In a speech at the Society's annual general meeting in Edinburgh today (17 March), Caroline Flanagan will highlight failings in the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission as proposed in the Scottish Executive's Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill.

The Society is concerned that the cost of the new independent body for handling service complaints against lawyers, which the Executive proposes is wholly funded by the legal profession, could drive some firms, particularly those in rural areas, out of business.

Mrs Flanagan will also voice the profession's fears that solicitors could be prevented from taking on certain types of work which often lead to complaints, such as matrimonial disputes and conveyancing., but which form the mainstay of many high street firms across Scotland.

Apart from cost, the Society has a number of serious concerns about the bill, including:

  • Compensation limits for inadequate professional service are to be raised from £5,000 to £20,000, which could be a crippling burden, particularly for small firms on tight margins;
  • Independence, as ministers will appoint members of the Commission's board, which will have no guarantee of solicitor representation;
  • Possible breach of human rights, since neither complainers nor solicitors will have a right of appeal to a judicial body.

While the Society backed the establishment of an independent body for handling service complaints against lawyers because of the need to boost confidence in the system, it maintains that change must bring about real improvement and be workable and effective, otherwise there would be no advantage to ending the service provided at present by its Client Relations Office.

Mrs Flanagan will say: "The Society questions the Bill's constitutionality, its compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the consequences of access to justice if it is introduced in its present form."

She adds: "My firm belief is that the introduction of the new Commission in its presently proposed form will lead to the creation of advice deserts in Scotland....

"It appears to me that there is a systematic threat to the legal profession and the rule of law both in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom."